Client Focused, or Just a jerk?

It’s an interesting marketing tactic – the “client focused” lawyer.  We’re all here to serve clients, and we all have our client’s interests at heart (or should).  So what am I talking about?

Generally it comes in the guise of a lawyer who touts themselves as being a tough advocate, fighting for your interests.  Chasing down leads, aggressively litigating, writing strongly worded letters.  It frequently manifests in lawyers who are rude to their colleagues (whether at other firms or their own), and their relationships with clients are based on the fundamental premise that they will fight hard no matter the circumstance.

And I don’t like it.

I don’t like it for a number of reasons, some personal and some professional.  I’ll share a few with you, but I’d love your thoughts – is representation of this nature really a good idea?

The Hired Gun Problem

There are not a small number of occasions where I have received a letter from a “client focused” lawyer, generally threatening my client with something (that’s the area I work in, however such lawyers are not limited to the litigation field).  Often I will look at the letter a bit quizzically.  I’ll look at it again.  Sometimes I’ll show another lawyer.  Gradually it dawns on me what the problem is – the letter has no merit, nor any substance.  It is comprised, essentially, of vague accusations followed by blustering threats.

And I cannot help but think – has this lawyer actually spoken with their client about this letter?  Have they actually sat their client down and told them that there is no case here, no merit, no substance and no cause for such a letter to be written?

Or have they egged their client on, told them that they’ll “fire something off”.

Of course I never know for sure – but the outcome of matters kicked off in such a way generally confirms my suspicions.

The Rude Jerk Problem

“Our client will aggressively litigate this matter if your client does not X, Y or Z immediately”, or perhaps “My client will not agree to your client’s outrageous demands”.  My favourite is “our client will seek full indemnity costs against yours”. Sounds cool, right?

Frequently we find such letters involve phrases like “it is obvious that” or “it should be self-evident that” normally followed by a ridiculous statement or conclusion that is neither obvious nor self-evident (as an aside, I suspect I’ve used those phrases myself on occasion, but it should be self-evident that I’m not perfect).

I can’t help but wonder – does anybody think that kind of language actually works?  Mostly I find letters like that funny.  Principally that is because I don’t assess the merits of a particular argument based on the other party’s assertions.  Strategically it might have an effect on non-lawyers or less sophisticated recipients – but if you’re writing to a lawyer, the self-serving puffery generally just makes you look like an idiot.

If you want to write an assertive letter that has impact, don’t base it on ego and pomp – base it on having a compelling commercial or legal argument to support your client’s position.  If you don’t have that – change strategy.

The Trusted Advisor Imperative

All lawyers want to do the right thing by their clients, and often that is trying to achieve the outcome that aligns with what their client wants.  Frequently that can involve strongly worded correspondence, difficult phone calls, and hard arguments with others.

However, there are times when a trusted advisor needs to tell their client no.  To me, the “client focused” lawyer also needs to be able to speak with their client about things that can’t be done, not just those that can.  The best lawyers are those whose clients trust them here at an emotional and strategic level.  Frequently that trust is based on the clients’ knowledge that the lawyer will tell them when something’s a bad call.

Client focus is great – but don’t forget you have a bigger picture.  You are objective counsel, independent advisor, and your duties extend beyond simply doing your client’s bidding.

Happy lawyering!

  • >